Thursday, May 17, 2012
Larry Charles' Masked and Anonymous, movie review by Travis Hedge Coke
“A vanity production beyond all reason.” - Roger Ebert
Masked and Anonymous was a movie that couldn't win for being made of win. Bob Dylan cowriting and starring in a movie about a strong messianic singer full of flaws and just freed from a stint in prison (as represented by a disused entrance at the LA Zoo) to play a benefit concert? It's ego when words are put in the mouths of characters lauding him or fearing his fame; it's ego when Dylan's own character, Jack Fate, says “I was always a singer and maybe no more than that.” He's faking humble, you see. And in a vanity film, no less. Because the worst thing any artist can do is put their own money and time into doing something that won't make them more money or more famous.
And, sure, Masked and Anonymous is pretentious. But, in an age of so many movies that aren't trying at all, isn't it worthwhile to reach out and let your reach exceed its grasp? In the movie, it is asked, “Would you reach out to a dying man, if while reaching, you thought he might pull you in?” And, sure there's a reflex answer. A Sensible answer. Loads of answers. But what's the good answer? What's the value of the question and what's missing from it?
On one level, this is just Larry Charles and Bob Dylan scripting dialogue for celebrities while they tour a camera around town to a soundtrack of Dylan covers, covers of Dylan, and new Dylan recordings. It's entirely made of stunt casting, meta-reference casting, from the roadies (Chris Penn and Christian Slater) to the dying American President (Richard Sarafian), entirely shot in LA (with the exception of stock footage), deliberately elliptical and even a “man eating chicken” joke is played utterly deadpan. But Larry Charles and Bob Dylan sending a film crew around on a tour of LA with dialogue is really rather beautiful. It's a gorgeous city and deserves to look gorgeous in a movie. Why not show off a locale if you can? Why not take your stunt caste or your menagerie and display them amidst bon mots and lights?
Mickey Rourke is great stunt casting, sure, and that should be – and is – embraced, but he also cleans up nice and wicked as the Vice President of America, half Andrew Jackson, half Dick Cheney, all sniffs and dismissal and undercurrents of raging envy. Charles and Dylan don't have to know that 2003 was a good year for political and religious commentary in a movie, they just stick their hand out and feel around. Good year or not, you don't know if it's worth trying without trying. Same reasoning, I imagine, fueled the casting of Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in a dynamic wherein Bridges is the asshole. And what an ass he is! Bridges' Tom Friend is a brutal, pig-headed justice-minded journalist who clearly writes his answers for an interview before he asks his questions.
The bulk of critics hated Bridges role and his meanness, by the way. Several took his assaults as the thoughts of Dylan, directly, including Hendrix as the lonely sad boy whose forefathers were the pilgrims, and Janis Joplin, super-capitalist. This is, to my knowledge, the only movie where someone (Jessica Lange) put their hand between their legs and breathed funny and critics came out saying they weren't sure what happened in that scene. It's unbecoming of a critic to suggest critics are stupid, so I'll just let that rest there where you can reread it if you have to.
I'm not suggesting the movie is simple or that the makers had huge, brilliant special knowledge that motivated all of it, but I will say that Val Kilmer's bit with the rabbit is the best explanation of what bunnies have to do with the death and resurrection of Christ and it was a sad, funny, engrossing scene that, as most moments in the movie accomplish, expands to be relevant to the entirety of Masked and Anonymous. I'm not sure many unpretentious movies manage that, and those that do probably don't have as good a soundtrack.